Getting donations to Afghanistan earthquake victims will be far more difficult compared with other disasters due to sanctions against the country’s Taliban government and its troubled relationship with Western nations, experts say.
International groups that maintained operations in the country following the collapse of its government last year have rushed to eastern Afghanistan to coordinate aid in the region. The country’s state-run news agency reported that Wednesday’s 6.1-magnitude quake killed at least 1,000 and injured at least 1,500 more.
Already, the humanitarian response – which typically surges in the first 72 hours following an earthquake – has lagged in both size and speed due to the lack of pre-positioned supplies and the level of hunger and poverty that already exist in Afghanistan. Heavy rains and winds have also hampered rescue efforts.
“The challenge in Afghanistan is that it’s not just one thing,” said Patricia McIlreavy, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “It’s layer upon layer of different issues that impact you and your response and can vary according to what population you’re serving and what part of the country you’re working in.”
Many governments and philanthropic donors will not give funds directly to the Taliban-run government. Those sending aid to the country are hampered by the lack of regular flights into Kabul, the nation's capital, as well as customs delays once donations land there. Humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief says its shipment of 1 million doses of donated prenatal vitamins is still being held by customs weeks after it arrived in the country.
To show that aid for earthquake victims is welcome, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah, who almost never appears in public, asked the international community and humanitarian organizations “to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and to spare no effort.”
Daniel Hovey, Direct Relief’s director of emergency response, said the request is a sign of major change.
“That is the first time the Taliban has asked for foreign assistance,” Hovey said. “Prior to that, they’ve really wanted to keep a lot of the Western NGOs out because of a lack of trust for Western ideologies. But now it should open up some doors, as there’s been some complications with customs and other things for humanitarian aid.”
Because there are a limited number of humanitarian organizations still operating in Afghanistan, many nonprofits like Direct Relief are currently waiting to hear from organizations already on the ground about the needs they can help address. Direct Relief says it has offered the World Health Organization’s Afghanistan office emergency medicines and supplies needed for trauma care.
The WHO Afghanistan office tweeted that its teams have already reached a hospital in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, near the epicenter of the earthquake, and that 10 tons of medical supplies are in transit to the region.
UNICEF says it has dispatched several mobile health and nutrition teams to provide first aid to those who are injured, adding that it will also provide tents, blankets, kitchen equipment, clothing, and hygiene supplies. Other United Nations teams are also on site to assess needs in Paktika.
The World Food Programme reported it has sent at least 18 trucks carrying emergency supplies to the area near the quake's epicenter. It plans to initially provide emergency food to 3,000 households.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a prepared statement that the United States is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and its humanitarian partners are already delivering medical care and shelter supplies to the area. Sullivan said President Joe Biden has directed USAID and other federal government partners to assess further U.S. response options.
For those looking to donate to help those affected by the Afghanistan earthquake, McIlreavy, of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, said focusing on groups currently working in Afghanistan would be important. She said those groups will likely be reallocating their resources from other areas into Afghanistan and then depending on increased donations to replenish those resources.
“Organizations who left Afghanistan are unlikely to return,” she said. “You will be looking at those organizations who have already determined that they will work within the environment that exists, that have the ability to navigate the Afghan government and the parameters of the crisis. Those same organizations will now be asked to do more.”
Encouraging donations to disaster victims in complex political situations can often be more difficult, McIlreavy said.
“The challenge for all of us is if we truly care about humanity, we need to be able to diminish the blame-the-victim mindset we often have for complex emergencies,” she said. “Put the people at the center of the thinking rather than our judgments on the government and the political situation.”
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